Google “fire service pride” and you’ll see real quick how abundant it’s presence is in our industry. There are books, articles, blogs, clothing, you name it, all dedicated to the “P” word. But what happens when none exists? Even more importantly, how do you create it? Walk into any firehouse and you’ll most likely be greeted by a display case, some sort of wall of fame or something dedicated to past accomplishments and moments.
This is where my story starts. I was once new and assigned to an engine house with none of that. There were no display cases, no edgy logos, and not a single photo hanging up. It was a house of empty walls. It felt sterile and lacked character. An institutional white walled, brown trimmed look of a work place, not a firehouse. I didn’t like it, it wasn’t the place I had imagined. The three brass poles stood out like over dressed guests at a house party and the spiral staircase didn’t fit in at all. There was a watch desk, called the joker stand, which is where I would spend my day studying SOGs during probation. I didn’t mind because it allowed me to visualize what the house would look like if I had a choice.
I can’t tell you when it all started, but I can tell you it started outside with the old rusty firehouse bench no one used. I figured I might as well start there and work my way in. My senior man had recommended I always have a project, so taking his advice I got to work. Not to mention it was a great opportunity to make a good impression early on. So that’s what I did. Naturally, the green metal frame was stripped and replaced with fire truck red while the wood was refinished. Two weeks later, the firehouse had a nice new bench out front. It was the first thing anyone saw walking in and silently sent a loud statement of pride. The funny thing about that bench is what happened next. Every morning it seemed to be in a different spot. It turned out the shifts were fighting over where it should be. That’s when I learned a valuable lesson in the byproduct of pride, which is ownership. Before that bench was painted, I don’t think anyone even realized it existed at the firehouse, and now we were fighting over it. The Firefighters had made it their bench and unlike before, cared where it was located.
Prides an amazing thing, it’s extremely powerful in the most silent ways. It’s a subconscious undertone that takes hold of anyone in its influence. The trick is to be the influencer. Be the person who designs a company logo, a station T- shirt or patch. It always starts with one person that ends up coalescing the entire engine house. I learned that in a house of empty walls change starts with one little photo. It was an old 4×6 post card of our engine house showing horses turning out on a call in 1911. I hung it right next to the Tv in the kitchen. It wasn’t long before I added some others here and there, always in the kitchen since that’s where we hung out mostly. Weeks went by, some supporting comments were made but I didn’t think anyone really noticed, then something happened. One morning at shift change an officer on the most tenured crew said he had something for me. He gave me an old Manila envelope with company photos he’d had for decades and asked me to hang them up. That’s when I knew things had turned a corner. Pride and ownership is an incredibly powerful force that you can’t see or touch but is impossible to miss on display. Soon the walls were how they should be in any firehouse. Logos were made, shirts were printed and patches ordered. The influence didn’t stop at the door either, other companies in the battalion took note and started coming up with their own logos and shirts. It was to the point where each shift tried to out do the other with some sort of house project or display. It was an incredible experience over the course of a few years but in the end it all started with a project and a 4×6 photo.
The lessons to take away here are simple. Prides free and very powerful. It’s something that starts so small but can have a big impact. What I learned about pride and ownership in my first years on the job I took with me to later companies I was assigned to and the results were always the same. It’s a recipe for success that anyone can do. Its only ingredients are ambition and a decision to do it. So next time you find yourself in a house of empty walls and low morale, you’ll know what to do.
- Chris Tobin